‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar talks about Bishan Singh who is from the town of Toba Tek Singh, now in Pakistan. Bishan Singh is the main character of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh” published in 1955. Gulzar is deeply touched by the agony of Bishan Singh as well as the partition pangs described in Manto’s story. So he directly adopts the title and adapts the story through his poetic imagination. He has something more to tell Bishan Singh about what happened even after the official partition of 1947.
Summary of Toba Tek Singh
‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar begins with the poet’s urge to meet Bishan Singh at the Wagah border. He is still there, lying in the no man’s land ruthlessly clinging on the edge where Manto has ended his story. The poet has to tell him what has happened with others just like him. They were either butchered or wandering like a lunatic in their homeland. However, it was no more their country. Everything had changed overnight. The partition changed the political map of undivided India. Moreover, the poet has to tell Bishan Singh’s friend Afzal about the deaths of his dear ones. At last, the poet reiterates the infamous quote of Manto that ironically made the Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ dear to the readers.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Toba Tek Singh
‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar consists of eight stanzas. There are two major sections according to the subject matter of the poem. The first section presents a preliminary sketch of Bishan Singh and the second section contains the main idea of the poet. Moreover, the translated text is in free verse. The absence of rhyming in the poem depicts the horror of partition. Apart from that, the contraction of lines in between the stanzas breaks the flow of the poem. However, the poem doesn’t contain any metrical scheme. There are occasional spondees accompanied by the iambic meter.
Literary Devices in Toba Tek Singh
‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar begins with an allusion to “Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan”. Manto’s story is based on the life of Bishan Singh. In “He’s god”, the poet presents a metaphor. Here, the poet metaphorically compares Bishan Singh to god. There is also an irony in this line and the line following it. Moreover, the poet uses the word “partition” as a pun. At first, it refers to the amputation of body parts. Secondly, it refers to the political event of geographical segmentation that occurred in 1947. In the line, “Their heads were looted with the luggage on the way behind”, there is a metaphorical reference to Pakistan. At last, the poet alludes to the mutterings of Bishan Singh. This quote represents how the partition caused havoc in his mind and others like him.
Analysis of Toba Tek Singh
I’ve to go and meet Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan at Wagah
Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain
‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar presents the main character of Manto’s story in the first line. At the end of Manto’s story, Bishan Singh lies in the no-man’s-land at Wagah having refused to leave his motherland during partition. Gulzar finds him still there. His swollen feet remind the poet of his mental agony. Moreover, the poet refers to his incoherent muttering, “Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain”. The verbatim meaning of this line doesn’t portray a complete sense. However, it is just a reference to the boiling of lentils. It seems that the line refers to the political turmoil during the partition and how it impacted a commoner like Bishan Singh.
I’ve to locate that mad fellow
He alone has to decide – whose village to whose side.”
Thereafter, in ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Gulzar says he has to find “that mad fellow” somehow. He used to speak up from a branch from a higher branch of a tree as if “He’s god”. Moreover, the poet says he has to decide which village is in Pakistan and which one belongs to India. Through this line, the poet ironically refers to the politicians who acted as if they had lost control over their minds. They weren’t different from “that mad person” who sits on a branch of a tree thinking himself to be a god. Here, the higher branch of a tree is a symbol of political power.
When will he move down that branch
That Partition was only the first one.”
In this section of ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar, the poet talks about what he has to say to Bishan Singh. When he will descend from the tree, the poet can tell him about the climax of the partition-story. According to the poet, Bishan was not the only person whose mind was divided into pieces as well as the body. Others were going to be killed and amputated sooner or later. At last, the poet ironically refers to the partition of 1947 that led to a series of continuing partitions. The meaning of the second partition is different though.
I’ve to go and meet Toba Tek Singh’s Bishan at Wagah,
Their heads were looted with the luggage on the way behind.
In this stanza of ‘Toba Tek Singh’, Gulzar says he has to tell Bishan’s friend Afzal about the deaths of his dear ones namely Lahna Singh, Wadhwa Singh, and Bheen Amrit. They somehow managed to escape from Pakistan but in the end, they were butchered. Bloodthirsty men not only displaced their heads but also looted their belongings. This line refers to the ruthlessness of men during the partition.
Slay that “Bhuri”, none will come to claim her now.
Toba Tek Singhís Bishan beckons me often to say:
“Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain di Hindustan te Pakistan di dur fitey munh.”
In the last section of ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar, the poet refers to the nameless killings of thousands of humans. Moreover, they didn’t even leave a little girl, here referred to as “Bhuri”. Her parents might have been killed and only she survived. But, they thought what was the meaning of keeping that girl alive and the rest is history. The girl who grew “one finger” height every year. After her death at the hands of nationalistic men, her dead body got shortened each year. This imagery refers to the brutality of partition.
Moreover, the poet says there were a lot of mad people like Bishan who had yet to reach their destinations. They were standing on either side of the newly-drawn border between India and Pakistan. At last, the poet again quotes the mutterings of Bishan Sigh. But this time there is an addition. The last part of this quote, “Hindustan te Pakistan di dur fitey munh”, means “India and Pakistan go to the bloody hell”.
‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar refers to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. The overall poem is based on Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh”. This 1955 short story depicts the brutality and horror of the partition. People like Bishan Singh and Afzal collectively represent the inhabitants of India who suffered due to the political turmoil of that period. However, the partition has given birth to many stories, ironically to the sad and heart-wrenching ones.
Like ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Gulzar, the following poems present similar kinds of themes.
- Partition by Sujata Bhatt – Describes the moments during partition through the simple tale of a woman.
- I Say unto Waris Shah by Amrita Pritam – Describes how the land of love turned into a slaughterhouse during partition.
- To India – My Native Land by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio – Presents the condition of India in the colonial era.
- 26 January by Sahir Ludhianvi – Similarly presents the political and social condition after the independence of India.
You can read about 9 Famous Holocaust Poems here.